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Bloated creatives are hitting publishers’ bottom line and third-party tags are to blame

Published: 06 Sept 2023

Bloated creatives are hitting publishers’ bottom line and third-party tags are to blame

We’ve leapt from the frying pan of unauthorised data scraping into the fire of bloated creative file sizes. Once again, the fact that publishers are getting burned seems to be an acceptable trade-off for the rest of the advertising supply chain. However, unlike the shady world of data scraping, the problem here is easy to demonstrate with hard numbers.

The IAB sets guidelines for the file size of ad creatives – including all third-party tags bundled in the wrapper – which perform various functions such as ad verification, tracking, and brand safety. A major publisher member of the AOP investigated the creatives it was receiving and found many exceeded these guidelines, and that unusually large third-party tags were to blame.

For example, when one animated creative with an IAB-standard specification of 250kb was broken down into its constituent parts, the publisher found:

In this case, the extra tracking alone was heavier than the total weight allowed under IAB guidelines, and more than double the weight of the creative. The publisher has since had to remove one of its high value mobile ad formats from some of its properties as creatives were consistently outside of spec, resulting in an ongoing and significant loss of revenue.

There are many harmful consequences to inflated creative file sizes. The larger the file, the slower it loads, increasing the possibility that the ad will never be viewed by the visitor, and many out of spec ads will be blocked entirely by the browser. Not only does this reduce delivery rates and the associated revenues, it can also cause discrepancies between the rates reported to the advertiser and those reported by the publisher, leading to tense negotiations over who should pick up the bill.

Search rankings are affected as well. Google’s Core Web Vitals penalises sites that perform poorly, for which ad load is a significant factor. This is doubly frustrating when you consider that Google’s tracking tags are one of the culprits for inflated file sizes. These tags were not always so large, suggesting there has been a recent change on Google’s end – something the publisher in question is in the process of investigating.

Finally, user experience is impacted: empty ad slots fail to fill and sections of the page jump around as assets stream in and out. At a time when publishers are competing for attention in a crowded media ecosystem, none can risk driving away audiences or pushing them towards ad blockers.

Once again, publishers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Few are in a position to refuse advertising on the grounds that ads are not performant, yet accepting these ads comes with the baggage outlined above. Moreover, it calls into question the IAB guidelines which advertisers are expected to adhere to: what’s the point if they can be ignored without consequences?

Who is responsible for inflated creatives? And what can be done about them?

Every party in the advertising supply chain is affected by overburdened creatives while also bearing some responsibility for its continued prevalence, so nothing less than a whole industry response is likely to move the needle.

Publishers must display unity on this problem and carry out their own ad validation investigations to determine the extent to which they are affected. If just one publisher pushes back against out of spec creatives, there is a risk that advertisers will simply divert their spend to other publishers that aren’t kicking up a stink. Shrugging off this issue may be tempting in the short term, but long-term inaction will put downward pressure on site performance, user experience, and revenues.

Over on the buy side, advertisers expect the brand safety and tracking features delivered by third-party tags, while agencies are obliged to include them. Without publishers communicating to agencies the consequences of such tags’ inclusion at the other end, it’s highly unlikely that IAB specifications are given much, if any, consideration. The priority for agencies is getting the campaign over the line, so the best bet for publishers is to demonstrate the impact overburdened creatives have on campaign performance.

Ad tech intermediaries bear the most blame but have little incentive to act. The chance that IAS will take responsibility is slim, given their ongoing and unauthorised exploitation of publisher IP via these very same third-party tags (which is undoubtedly a contributor to the inflated file sizes to begin with). Google, on the other hand, has been responsive and certainly possesses the resources to make its part of the ad package leaner. The question is whether the issue will be treated as a high enough priority to get those resources.

Then there’s the IAB, the authors of the guidelines being breached. There are currently no consequences for such breaches, but neither is there likely to be any appetite — or capabilities — for enforcement. Perhaps the guidelines are out of date and need revisiting, but any update could not simply lift the file size cap due to the performance implications of heavy ad loads. The solution is not clear, but the authority of the IAB is undermined if its guidelines can be so easily ignored.

At the AOP, we will continue to monitor and speak on this issue in close cooperation with our ad operations steering group. We recommend all publishers use their ad validation tools to scrutinise creative file sizes and share their findings so that we can better gauge the extent of the issue. It may also be worth adding specifications to terms and conditions so that advertisers have a contractual obligation to abide by them.

Will we end up having to draft another open letter calling out ad tech intermediaries? I hope not, but tackling this issue will require publishers to cooperate with one another as well as with advertisers, agencies, and ad tech companies. No small feat, but publishers can’t afford to keep cleaning up messes made further up the supply chain.